The Isle of Sheppey is an island off the northern coast of Kent, England. It covers around 90 km2 of open marshes, rolling grasslands, and breach strewn coast. Set against a backdrop of heavy industry lining the Thames Estuary, and a short drive away from London’s bustling metropolis, Sheppey is a green oasis home to two national nature reserves: Elmley and Swale. These predominantly wetland habitats support an enormous range of birds and are famous for their large numbers of marsh harriers and short-eared owls, as well as wetland birds such as avocets, terns, grebes, cormorants, herons, and geese. Beyond the marshes, the sandy coastline is home to both grey and harbour seals. Sheppey even has a scorpion population that’s been resident since the 1860s when they were imported on a visiting ship!
Average rating: 3.7 (good)
Average cost: the island itself is free to visit, as is the remote and wild Swale Nature Reserve. Elmley is slightly more developed, with a cafe and accommodation. Day tickets to Elmley cost around $8 while guided tours cost between $35 and $62.
Best time to visit: you can visit the island year-round, with the best weather being May to October. If you’re looking for short-eared owls then the winter months are a good time to go.
How to get there: you can get a train to Sheerness-on-Sea station although the best way to access the nature reserves is via car. Sheppey itself is a short drive from London (around 1.5 hours). You can arrange boat trips to see the seals from Queenborough or the nearby town of Whistable.
Typical activities: bird watching, boat trip
Number of reports: 3
Last update: 2021
WILDLIFE IN Sheppey
According to reports submitted to WildSide the top ten most popular species that can be seen here are:
#1 Avocet – 33% OF Wildside users (1/3) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Avocets became extinct in the UK in the 1840s thanks to egg collectors and taxidermists. However, in the Second World War, a bomb blew a hole in the sea wall at Havergate Island, just along the coast from the RSPB’s Minsmere Reserve. As the tidal river flooded in, it created the perfect conditions for this beautiful bird. Thanks to this and ongoing conservation efforts, they can now be seen in the East and South West of England. They have even become the logo for the RSPB following their successful recolonisation of the UK.
The Isle of Sheppy supports a good population of nesting avocets. They stand out from other birds due to their upturned bills, striking black and white colouring, and long blue legs – with Chris Packham calling them the ‘Audrey Hepburn of birds‘. Avocets can be found nesting in groups on islands in Elmley Nature Reserve or leading their young chicks to shallow, muddy water.
#2 Grey seal – 33% OF Wildside users (1/3) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The UK’s coastline is an important breeding ground for seals, providing a home to over 50% of the world’s Atlantic grey seals. Despite being a busy shipping lane, the Thames Estuary supports around 900 grey and harbour seals, with the number of grey seals on the increase. The best place to see them is on one of the seal-watching boats leaving from Whistable or Queenborough. During high tide, they are most likely to be spotted bobbing around the shoreline looking for food. During low tide, it’s hard to miss them lounging on the sandbanks dotting the coastline.
#3 Harbour seal – 33% OF Wildside users (1/3) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Alongside the greys, Sheppey is also home to harbour seals. Surveys suggest that harbour seals are more prevalent than greys, with a population of around 40 living on the island year-round. Again, the best way to see these creatures is to hop aboard one of the seal-watching boats. They can be distinguished from grey seals by the unique V-shape of their nostrils. They are also much smaller than the larger greys. There’s a nice guide to help you tell them apart here. Interestingly, harbour seals are usually a light brown/grey colour. In the Thames Estuary, however, they can be bright orange as their fur is dyed by the iron-rich mud.
#4 Marsh harrier – 33% OF Wildside users (1/3) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
One of Sheppey’s main draws from a wildlife perspective is the large number of raptors it supports, with marsh harriers being one of the stars. One survey of marsh harrier numbers recorded an incredible 180 birds on the island! They are easily spotted year-round, particularly on the drive into Elmley Nature Reserve where they circle the skies over the reedbeds. Another great spot to look out for them is Capel Fleet or ‘raptor mound’. This vantage point gives sweeping views across the island and is claimed to be the best place in Britain to see birds of prey.
#5 Short-eared owl – 0% OF Wildside users (0/3) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The other major raptor star that can be spotted on Sheppey is the short-eared owl. Unusually for owls, short-ears prefer to be out and about in the daytime so are relatively easy to spot compared to other owls. Early morning or late day are usually good times to look. Sheppey is a fantastic place to spot them with large numbers living on the island – one visitor recorded five in one trip! As with marsh harriers, you can see them at Elmley or Capel Fleet. Unlike marsh harriers, however, the best time to look for them is winter when resident birds are joined by winter migrants. Look out for them flying low over the grasslands and wetlands searching for field voles and small birds.
#6 common tern – 33% OF Wildside users (1/3) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Common terns are summer visitors to the UK, nesting in noisy colonies on shingle beaches, rocky islands, and inland on the gravelly shores of lakes and rivers. Shellness beach on the edge of the Swale National Nature reserve is a fantastic spot for all manner of gulls and waders – including common terns. There is a nice write up of the birds of Shellness here. Alongside common terns you can spot sandwich and little terns. You can also see these fantastic birds from the hides in Elmley, vigorously defending their nests from any passing intruders.
#7 Great crested grebe – 33% OF Wildside users (1/3) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The great crested grebe is an elegant waterbird with distinctive chestnut and black head plumes (in spring and summer) which are raised during courtship. During this courtship display, they rise out of the water and shake their heads. Young grebes, which are striped black and white (like humbugs!), are often seen riding on their parents’ backs. Grebes are commonly found year-round on lakes and wetlands across the UK where they nest on floating platforms made up of waterweed. Elmley is a good place to spot them. If you visit in early Spring you may get a chance to see their beautiful courtship dance.
#8 Great cormorant – 33% OF Wildside users (1/3) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Great cormorants are commonly found around the UK’s rocky coastline – which supports internationally important populations of this species. They are around the size of a goose with large bodies and long thick necks. Adults are black, with white on their faces and thighs. On Sheppey, cormorants are commonly seen on the seal-watching boats that tour the island’s coastline. They are most easily spotted when sitting perched on a log or rock, stretching out their wings out to dry in the sun.
#9 Grey heron – 33% OF Wildside users (1/3) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Grey herons are large, unmistakeably graceful birds with long slender necks and legs. They are wetland birds and are commonly found in the Elmley and Swale reserves. They overwinter in the UK so you can spot them year-round. Herons are most often seen stood as still as statues in the shallower edges of lakes or ponds, patiently waiting for their next meal to swim by. While they are usually fish eaters – one heron on Sheppey made the news for attacking and eating a weasel!
#10 Greylag goose – 33% OF Wildside users (1/3) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The greylag goose, which is the ancestor of most domestic geese, is the largest of the geese native to the UK. Flocks are typically found around lakes and wetlands, like those at the reserves on Sheppey. They are often seen alongside Canada geese – which are also found in abundance here. Greylags are a greyish-brown colour with pink legs, and their large bills are orange with white tips. As with most geese, they can often be seen flying in ‘V’s’ above the reserves.
Photo credit: WildSide team member Chris White